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The Question

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This is a story I wrote for my old website, and found again.


The Question
By Frank Hagan
Copyright 2000, The Gaff Rig Magazine
Published  by Back Yard Yacht Builder's Organization
Reprinted by permission

"The Question". It seems so witty to those who haven’t heard it dozens of times. Here’s a test: you are a veteran boat builder if you can reveal, Jeopardy style, "The Question" for these answers:

  •      Because I wanted to.
  •      I had all this extra marine plywood, and don’t know any marines.
  •      God told me there’s going to be a flood.

I was never really sure how to answer "The Question". But now I know.

I was dreading "The Question" when the family came up during Christmas. Wouldn’t you know it, the year its our turn to host Christmas, I’m involved in a boat building project.


There’s the usual mix of creativity in the family. Even a restored boat in one brother’s garage. A sister who is a true-to-life artist (which I define as sculpting things like sexy mermaids in bas relief, and getting paid for it.) Others in the family take art lessons, and produce stuff that looks to my untrained eye as actually approaching art, the critics be damned. Another brother who turns lumps of clay into useful art.

And there’s me. I’m a middle manager, on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder. I read self help books, for heaven’s sake. I was the brother who cried when a spider ran across his hand, rather than picking it up and playing with it just to scare the girls.


But it comes natural for the rest of the family. The creative ones. My mother is a writer, with two published books, and my father was a carpenter. Now if you want to impress people, you say that your father was "in construction." But I never had the urge to inflate what my father did. He built things. He built the house I lived in for the first 13 years of my life. He built John Wayne’s house, and did the finish work inside Raquel Welch’s apartment (his best line that year: "If she keeps snubbing me, I’ll never sleep with her.")  I can drive around southern California, and see things my dad built. The matched grain hardwood ceiling in the church. The classroom where tomorrow’s leaders toss spitballs and tease the girls. Stores. Houses. Movie studios. Things, real things.

Dad was quiet, and always in control. There was a presence about him, an air of authority, that made him seem like a giant to me. But he was never mean. And even when I reached my teens and realized he was not perfect, I always admired the man he was. I never feared becoming "just like my old man" because, to be honest, I pray that I can be just a little bit like him. And worry that I cannot.


Dad’s old now, and not doing too well.  Now he’s small, and frail, and at times I’m not sure he knows who we are. He spends three hours, three days a week with his blood circulating through a machine because his body can’t clean it. And the rest of the time is spent mostly sitting, watching TV, reading or looking out the window.

When Dad got a mix of drugs that confused his mind, we thought it had gone for good. Yesterday was mixed up with today, and one moment he was back on the beach at Normandy and the next, living in the one story house across the street. "You live here now, Granddad," my daughter would say. He would accept it, and go back to the TV, unsure why the old woman was saying she was his wife when he remembered her as young, and blond, and giggling, instead of looking so sad.


We were afraid that he would find his souvenirs from the war, and think he was back on the bridge at Ramagen, and harm himself or others. They were carried away when he wasn’t looking. In his shop, a thousand dangers leapt up at us, eager to injure someone who remembered where a switch was, but not where the spinning blade was. I went through it and disabled the machines that helped him build the things, the real things everywhere, that remind me of the man he was.

Removing the v-belt from the jointer, I remembered the v-belt story: my brother got his finger stuck between the pulley and the belt. With quiet determination, Dad tried to gently move the pulley back, then forward, to free his finger. Met with yelps at every effort, my father turned to one of us and said, "go get a knife." A gasp, then "are you going to cut off his finger?" prompted a greater yelp from the owner of the stuck finger. "No, I’m not going to cut off his finger." We all waited in horrible anticipation until our father cut the BELT, not the finger! Why did we think this quiet, gentle man would cut off a finger? We should have known he would never hurt us.


The machines had been silent for years, but there was a finality to disabling them. Like severing a vital link between man and machine, each v-belt removed, or plug cut off seemed to violate everything his life had meant. But it had to be done.


The mix of medicines changed, and he came back to us. Not all the way. But enough for us to count our blessings once again.

My father came up for Christmas. He couldn’t remember if he had been in our house before, but if he had, it faced the other way. He had built one facing that way before. He asked if the light hanging from the chain had always been there. But mostly, he was quiet and sat among us.

"Frank’s building a boat! You’re kidding!" I heard several in the family exclaim.  My wife ratted me out. We filed out to the garage for me to take my punishment. And then "The Question". I froze with that scared little brother look, and then we were all laughing. "Can you get it out of here?" and we shared another story, the famous bet about a day sailer my uncle built in 1949. It was too wide for the 30" shed door. The neighborhood turned out when it was finished to share in his folly, but he turned the boat sideways, and it slid out the door easily. That’s how he got the money for the sails.

Still more good-natured ribbing, "Will it float?" and more laughter. I noticed my dad was quiet again, running his hand along the top rub rail. He stepped back and considered the majestic sweep of the sheer, and then moved forward to touch the cabin side. I had the sense that he saw more than wood and screws as the rest of us continued our chatter. The stories finally became quiet, and we started back into the house.

My father lingered a bit, touched the rub rail again, and looked me square in the eye. We were alone in the garage, my father, my boat and me. He said "Its good that you build a boat. I never built a boat."

I have an answer now. It almost sounds disrespectful, but its not. You can only build so many things in one life, even if you are a giant. Seeing someone build something you did not is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. For the true giants build even after the machines are quiet, and their hands are still. Its just that what they continue to build is people, not things.

That day, I realized my father never stopped building.

"The Question" doesn’t stump me anymore.  I know my answer to "The Question" now. You see, my father never built a boat.

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